It’s not uncommon to see NFL players change their helmet types in-between seasons, especially with more and more models being put on the market every year. This upcoming season though, 32 players will be donning new helmets whether they want to or not. Every offseason, the NFL and NFLPA jointly run a helmet safety test on all helmet models currently worn or scheduled to be added to the league. In 2019, for the first time in the five year history of the experiment, the league decided to ban helmets that scored in the bottom safety tier. While most of these models were a decade plus old and had been phased out naturally, the ruling leaves a few veterans searching for new headgear in 2019.
One of those veterans is Tom Brady. Most Patriots fans are familiar with his preemptive switch last year, before defaulting back to his old VSR4 model (he will return to the Riddell SpeedFlex this season). However, there will be another long-time Patriots player with a new lid in 2019. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who had worn a VSR4 his entire career, has been wearing a version of the AirXP so far in training camp.
“It’s nice. It’s not too much different than my other one” Gostkowski said Thursday after practice. Unlike Brady, Gostkowski didn’t try to jump the gun on the change last year, and only started working with the new model this spring. “I was just a creature of habit. I was just trying to hold on to what I started with as long as I could.”
The Patriots kicker had been wearing the same style of helmet since entering the league in 2006. After 13 years of the same headgear, Gostkowski wasn’t about to rush the replacement process. “I tried a few, and then I tried to get the one that looked the most like it…The first one I tried, it was so tight it felt like it was coming off my head. The next one they gave me felt really nice.”
Knowing he was looking for a similar feel to the VSR4, it’s not surprising to see Gostkowski in the AirXP. Due to the increased level of padding in new helmets, most current models are relatively heavier than those designed 10-20 years ago. However, the AirXP weighs in at as low as 3.7 pounds, according to the Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings study. It is the lightest NFL-eligible helmet studied by the program. For reference, the heaviest is the Schutt F7 (the model worn by Stephon Gilmore last year), which weighs 5.1 pounds, but received the best safety rating off all Schutt helmets tested.
Gostkowski did acknowledge that unlike most other players on the field, he gets the luxury of picking a helmet he likes for feel and aesthetics, without having to factor in much about the safety level. “I have to worry about making one or two hits a year. It’s just a comfort thing…Obviously for me, a facemask that I can see through is pretty big.”
Ultimately though, Gostkowski understands that in this case, change is good. “You’re used to feeling one way, and having to change, it gets you a little grouchy. But it’s for our own good, and if I do have to make a tackle it’s nice to know that I’m protected…Our [equipment] guys are so good. They look out for player safety. In the off chance I have to make a hit, I feel like I’m protected.”
Helmets and helmet types may be a small detail that can go unnoticed by most casual fans, but they obviously have a big effect on the players. Most players had already switched to newer, safer models, with 50% of players upgrading to a higher-testing design between the 2017 and 2018 seasons. As was mentioned earlier, only 32 of the nearly 2,000 players (~2%) were not in an improved helmet. Not that players like Tom Brady or Stephen Gostkowski, or even Adrian Peterson (who also was required to wear a new helmet) need to add to their resumes of impressive longevity, but it is wild to think that their helmets have retired before they did. We’ll see how the change effects Gostkowski this year, and if he stays in the AirXP for the duration of the season, but as of now it certainly feels like he made the right choice.